It had three scoring runs of double-digit points. It had a first-half scoring explosion for the ages. It had the Ivy League’s two co-champions playing a rubber match for the ages in their best game of the year yet.
And it has Penn men’s basketball going to March Madness for the first time in 11 years.
In an incredibly anticipated Ivy League tournament championship game, both teams more than lived up to the hype in what will go down as an instant classic in Penn basketball history. Using a 24-0 run spanning both halves, the No. 2 Quakers overcame a 13-point first-half deficit and held on by the skin of their teeth to knock off No. 1 Harvard, 68-65, to clinch the conference’s automatic NCAA Tournament spot for the first time since 2007.
“That’s an unreal feeling, and I don’t think I’ve ever experienced anything like that before,” said sophomore forward AJ Brodeur, who finished with 16 points and 10 rebounds. “Being in the Palestra, with such an outstanding and amazing arena, winning an Ivy League Championship and having all these fans here to support you — the whole thing, it’s crazy, and we’re still in awe.”
Though he was held scoreless in the final 20 minutes, the first half was all about Penn senior guard Darnell Foreman, who single-handedly lit the Palestra to life with a superb individual effort in what could’ve been his final collegiate game. Getting to the rim at will time and time again, Foreman scored 11 of Penn’s first 13 points, helping the Quakers to an early 13-10 edge.
Soon after that came a 16-0 run from Harvard (18-13, 12-2 Ivy) over the span of seven minutes, one where the Quakers were as aggressive as usual attacking the rim but couldn’t get anything to fall.
Harvard went up 26-13 at that point, but instead of crumbling after the Crimson pulled off their burst, Penn (24-8, 12-2) came back with one that was even better. The end of the first half was yet again the Foreman show, with the senior scoring eight points in the final three minutes of the half to give Penn a lead that seemed impossible only minutes prior.
Hitting an NBA-range three-pointer with only two seconds left, Foreman sent the Palestra into complete mayhem, memorably sprinting into the locker room as soon as the shot fell and sending the Red and Blue into the locker room with a 34-32 lead.
“[I was] trying to be a leader, just finding some way to spark us, and I take pride in that; that’s one thing that my teammates need from me,” Foreman said. “Walking in this building every day, you wanna be on that wall, you wanna be in the Palestra. You want to have that history, and now that team has it. This team is gonna be remembered.”
Coming out of the break, the names changed, but Penn’s dominance remained the same. Led by Brodeur, the Quakers scored the first 11 points of the second half to stretch their lead to a game-high 10 points.
But the see-saw would only continue from there, with the Crimson quickly clawing back into things. Trailing 55-45 midway through the half, Ivy League Player of the Year Seth Towns finally began to get going, catalyzing a 13-0 Harvard run to put his team on top yet again.
As the passionate Palestra crowd began to heat up in the final minutes, though, Penn gave it what it wanted with clutch late play. And as has been the theme all season, it was someone new stepping up when called upon — after Foreman dominated the first half and Brodeur excelled early in the second, Caleb Wood hit back-to-back three-pointers in the final four minutes, giving the Quakers a lead they wouldn’t relinquish the rest of the way.
Even playing without Towns, who injured his knee with just over eight minutes left and didn’t see the floor the rest of the way, the Crimson were able to cut the lead to as little as one point with under a minute left. But unlike last year’s Ivy semifinal loss to Princeton, the Quakers closed out.
Ryan Betley hit two clutch free throws, Harvard couldn’t connect from downtown on its last possession, and chaos ensued in the Palestra as players and fans celebrated the school’s first March Madness appearance in 11 years.
“Honestly I didn’t even dream about this, I didn’t think we could do it. I drove home last night saying, ‘I gotta get that out of my head, I gotta show some confidence,'” third-year coach Steve Donahue said. “I didn’t it was possible for us to get to the NCAA Tournament until that horn went off. In a building I grew up in, and watching the kids storm the floor for our guys, it’s magic.”
Penn’s next task will be the most difficult the program has seen in a long time: the Quakers will attempt to become the first-ever No. 16 seed to take down a No. 1 seed on Thursday, in the form of Kansas (27-7, 13-5 Big 12). But no matter the result of the Quakers' next attempt at glory, one thing is undeniable — Penn men’s basketball is in the history books.